(The Root) — Malinda Williams might be better-known for her comedic roles on Moesha and Nick Freno: Licensed Teacher from her mid-1990s sitcom days. But at times in her career, the former child actor has shown legitimate dramatic acting chops. Remember her as Bird on the TV series Soul Food?
This week at the American Black Film Festival in Miami, the New Jersey native provides additional proof that she can handle the heavy roles. In The Undershepherd, from radio personality-turned-director Russ Parr, Williams plays Casandra, the dutiful but abused wife of a power-hungry preacher (Isaiah Washington) — a role that scored her a nomination in the best-actress category at the festival.
The film takes an unfiltered look at the black church, which seems timely, given the recent news of more than a few prominent pastors' falls from grace. The Root recently caught up with Williams, who explained how she was not afraid to be part of a project that airs the proverbial dirty laundry.
The Root: Could you describe your character?
Malinda Williams: I play the first lady of First Baptist Church, and what happens is Isaiah Washington's character, who is my husband — his name is Pastor Keith — he just becomes completely absorbed by the power that he attains as he makes his way up the ranks in the church. Years ago, when we decided to get married, we decided that he would pursue his calling and I, as his wife, would stand by his side.
Sometimes you don't really understand how power could corrupt you; you don't really understand the responsibilities that come along with power. What happens to this couple is that they weren't necessarily ready for things, such as more money coming in, more adulation, more attention. He had this abusive trait about him already that became magnified the more pressure he felt on his shoulders.
MW: It's interesting because the issues that we're dealing with here just so happen to be set in the black church, but they aren't necessarily exclusive to religion or to the black church. These are issues that can happen at any institution, whether it's an educational institution, political atmosphere, corporate America. It's really about the corruption of power. It's really about people who can't handle the responsibilities of that much power.
TR: Some of the other films you've done have been comedies. How important is it for you not to be considered just a comedic actress?
MW: I always try to tell the truth. Sometimes the truth is funny, and sometimes the truth makes you cry. To me, there really isn't a difference. There's a fine line between drama and comedy … Some of the best comedic actors or the best comedians have a lot of drama in their lives, and they're really just offering relief or looking for relief from the drama. Out of that comes comedy.
TR: Russ Parr has been emerging as a filmmaker who is giving black actors a chance to get on-screen. How do you feel about the state of indie film and the opportunities that may be available because of directors like him?
MW: I really admire and applaud Russ because he's getting it done … in a way that is meaningful. People like myself are looking for projects [like the ones] Russ produces because Russ always starts with the most important element, which to me is a great script.
You can have the money, you can have the distribution channels, you can have a great crew, you can have a great cast. But if you don't have a great script, then ultimately you're not going to have a great project. Russ is definitely one to watch in terms of putting out great projects. He writes from his heart, and that's really important.
Brett Johnson is associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.